Bulimia and Substance Abuse

Co-occurring disorders affect 7.7 millions Americans, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Among these include people who struggle with bulimia and addiction.

This article will explain what bulimia is and how to get help if you or a loved one is struggling with co-occurring disorders.

What Is Bulimia?

Bulimia is a form of mental health disorder classified under the category of eating disorders. This disorder is characterized by behaviors that include frequent episodes of binge eating (e.g., eating more often or larger amounts of food than average), and engaging in behavior to compensate for binges, such as purging (vomiting), fasting, and excessive exercise.

Signs of Bulimia

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) there are a number of signs of bulimia, which include:

  • Discomfort eating around other people.
  • Disappearance of large quantities of food in short periods of time.
  • Large quantities of empty wrappers or food containers.
  • Often disappears after eating, usually to the bathroom.
  • Discolored or damaged teeth.
  • Mouth sores.
  • Swollen cheeks.
  • Food hoarding.
  • Excessive exercise.
  • Excessive concern with appearance and weight.

Family members who are concerned that someone they love may be suffering from bulimia should look for behaviors related to binging and purging. Restricting diet alone is not a strong sign of bulimia. Rather, individuals that go on binges and indulge in large amounts of food — usually their favorite junk foods and snacks — are more likely to be suffering from bulimia. That being said, the bingeing must be accompanied by purging.

Sometimes, purging comes after a large binge. Sometimes, it immediately follows the smallest of meals. Regardless of how much food or drink is consumed, the sufferer feels compelled to rid their body of it. If your loved one is leaving the dinner table quickly after each meal and locking themselves in the bathroom with the water running, this is reason to be concerned.

Health Risks of Bulimia

Without treatment, severe side effects often stem from bulimia. The risk of heart failure and kidney failure are high in cases of untreated eating disorders. Lowered caloric intake results in nutrient and fluid depletion that cause low blood pressure and irregular heart patterns. Since vomiting is a strong component of bulimia, dental erosion is a common side effect.

Co-Occurring Disorders

In many cases, bulimia is present alongside other disorders, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or substance use disorders.  Substance use disorder is actually more common in people who binge and purge than in individuals with eating disorders who limit their food intake (e.g., anorexia) according to Social Work Today.

Substance Use Disorders and Bulimia

Many people who battle bulimia will start out use drugs and alcohol and develop bulimia as a consequence. The mechanisms involved in these cases are not fully understood, but it is thought those who struggle with a substance use disorder may feel like they have lost control of many aspects of their lives and want to reinforce that they still have control by restricting their eating habits. In an International Journal of Eating Disorders study, while 21.7 percent of the typical female population had a history of abusing alcohol, 31 percent of women with bulimia did.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) lists certain criteria that professional use to diagnose a substance use disorder. There are eleven substance use disorder criteria, among which include:

  • Substances are used in larger amounts or for a longer period of time than was intended.
  • There is a persistent desire to cut back or stop using substances, but the person is unable to do so.
  • A great deal of time is spent getting, using, or recovering from the use of substances.
  • Cravings, or a strong urge to use a substance or substances.
  • Failure to keep up with responsibilities at work, home, or school due to substance use.
  • Giving up important family, social, and work-related tasks due to substance use.

Getting Help for Co-Occurring Bulimia and Substance Use Disorders

Both bulimia and addiction to drugs or alcohol can take a heavy toll on a person’s physical and mental health, quality of life, and relationships. Getting professional help from experienced and qualified healthcare professionals is critical to getting on the road to recovery.

If you or someone you love is struggling with bulimia and substance use disorders, it’s important to get the right kind of treatment. Co-occurring disorder treatment is often the best course for individuals struggling with bulimia and addiction, which addresses and treats both disorders simultaneously.

Contact our helpful and knowledgeable admissions navigators at 24/7 to learn more about our inpatient rehab near Tampa and our different levels of care. Recovery is possible; make the call today.



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